Anchoring the center of France is the Massif Central, a rugged plateau of ancient granite and hardened lava, punctuated by volcanic peaks and deep river gorges. This is the land of the Auvergne, a region of natural beauty and dramatic landscapes, located midway between Paris and the Mediterranean sea.
Believed to be inhabited since prehistoric times, regional artifacts suggest that the Celts lived here as early as 400 BC. Today, the Auvergne boasts some of France's most beautiful Romanesque churches, medieval castles, and Renaissance era palaces. The first cathedral to be built in present day Clermont-Ferrand was erected by Saint Namace in 450 AD, and rebuilt in the Gothic style beginning in the thirteenth century. In the medieval town of Montpeyroux, one of the most beautiful villages in France, artisans can be found practicing their ancient crafts in an authentic fortress tower.
A major natural monument in the Auvergne is Puy de Dome (pictured), an extinct volcano which rises 1,465 meters (4,807 feet), providing breathtaking views of the Puy mountain chain and the green plains below. A winding road takes visitors to the peak, where remains of the Roman Temple of Mercury can still be seen. On this site in 1648 Blaise Pascal performed his famous experiment on the weight of air.
The area is a paradise of outdoor activities, including skiing, rafting, biking, golfing, hiking, and hang-gliding. Lakes Guery, Aydat, Pavin, and Chambon provide excellent opportunities for water sports such as canoeing, fishing, swimming, and sailing.
Renowned for its cheeses, widely-available selections include the blue cheeses Fourme d'Ambert and Bleu d'Auvergne, as well as Cantal, Salers, and St-Nectaire. Local dishes include pounti, a souffle-like creation composed of ham, eggs, vegetables, and cream.
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